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What Are Terpenes and Why do They Matter?

Reading time: 6 Minutes

Lately, it seems like all anyone can talk about are terpenes. Especially terpenes and cannabis. But what exactly are terpenes and why do they matter?

If you’ve enjoyed the sharp, citrus scent of an orange or the delicate, floral quality of a rose, then you’ve experienced terpenes. Terpenes are what give most plants their scent or taste. But even more than that, terpenes have a lot of potential benefits and they create sensorial experiences. 

And those experiences can be surprisingly vast...

What are terpenes?

In the most basic sense, a terpene is an organic hydrocarbon. But what does that mean for you? Technically, there are hydrocarbons all around us. And “hydrocarbon” really just means that it’s a compound made of both hydrogen and carbon. If you didn’t know, there are a LOT of hydrocarbon substances. But very few of them are as enjoyable as terpenes.

what are terpenes?


If you’ve ever used essential oils, then you’ve ALMOST used terpenes. Essential oils are extracted from plants and, for quite some time, were considered the “essence” of a plant. However, plants actually contain several different terpenes. So an essential oil will contain several different terpenes too. 

As an example, Pine Oil may smell strictly like the sharp, earthy scent of a coniferous tree. But it actually contains the terpenes alpha-pinene, beta-pinene, and terpinolene. Along with a few other compounds, these terpenes are what help to create the blended scent that we know as pine. 

It’s only been recently that technology has allowed us to further refine essential oils so we can isolate individual terpenes. It's also allowed us to develop compounds known as terpenoids.

While the term terpenoid has often been used interchangeably with terpene, they're not exactly the same. We know that the latter is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon, but terpenoids have been denatured by oxygen. This is often done through the drying or curing of herbs and flowers.

But with either compound, there are limitless applications!

Why do terpenes matter?

Other than being the building blocks of your favorite scents and flavors, terpenes matter because they interact with us. And they interact with us in some pretty interesting ways.

You might have noticed that sometimes certain scents evoke particular memories. In the past, it was thought that certain smells can bring about an emotional state because of a memory associated with that scent. And to a certain extent, that’s true. 

Terpenes and Cannabis - Effects of terpenes

Psychology Today says that scents are “processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain.” That bulb is also directly connected to the amygdala and the hippocampus--brain areas strongly associated with emotion and memory.  But with terpenes it’s not quite so simple. 

Terpenes can actively influence receptors in the brain. This influence can affect a number of different neurotransmitters, and, depending on the terpene, it can have various effects. The good news is that a lot of these effects are very beneficial to the body.

Some terpenes are anti-inflammatory, some are analgesic, and some even have mood enhancing properties. And we’ve been interacting with terpenes for quite some time too.


A brief history of terpenes

Ok, maybe people didn’t know they were using terpenes. But when medieval people put lavender under their pillows to help them sleep, they were reaping the benefits of linalools calming, relaxing properties. 

Black pepper was used in ancient Ayurvedic medicine as an anti-inflammatory and to improve digestion. All along, they were really utilizing the medicinal properties of beta-caryophyllene. The point is, whether we’ve been aware of it or not, we’ve been benefiting from terpenes as long as we’ve been using plants. 

While the perfume industry was certainly using terpenes long before this, it wasn’t until 1887 when a German chemist, Otto Wallach, discovered the structures of several different terpenes. After that, the scientific community finally started understanding the intricacies of terpenes. 

The fairly recent use of molecular distillation has made it possible for the precise isolation of specific terpenes. This means that a much greater amount of control can be used. For companies trying to use terpenes in their products, this is a VERY good thing.

The terpene levels of plants can vary due to any number of things (soil, farming practices, drought, etc.). So even if you’re using the same plants from the same farm that you’ve used for a decade...the terpene levels can still vary. This means that the scents and flavors of your products can vary too. And a lack of consistency isn’t a good thing when you’re trying to create a successful product. 

The ability to isolate terpenes gives us more control over their commercial use and more control over research into their potential benefits. 

Terpene benefits

Like we said earlier, terpenes have a variety of different effects. Some of those affects influence our bodies and others influence our frame of mind. Here is a short list of some of our terpenes and their potential benefits.

Myrcene - This is a fantastic terpene to blend with other terpenes because of its effect on the blood-brain barrier. Essentially, that barrier is like a scary bouncer that only lets in so many people to a club. Myrcene has the ability to put that bouncer in a much better mood, meaning that more people can get in. So while it has anti-inflammatory, pain-relief, and analgesic properties all on its own, it can also boost the effectiveness of other terpenes as well.

D-Limonene - Found in oranges, limes, grapefruit, and lemons, this terpene obviously packs a big citrus kick. This terpene has been known to possess anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic, and antioxidant properties.

Linalool - Most often associated with the scent of lavender, this floral and minty terpene is commonly used in products designed to soothe and calm. That’s because of its powerful anesthetic-like affect that can reduce cell excitability in the spinal cord. This means linalool will help relax both your body and your mind.

Terpenes and Cannabis

Terpenes are gaining even more notoriety because of how they interact with cannabis. Our terpenes are 100% organic and contain absolutely zero cannabis. But with the legalization of cannabidiol (CBD) and with some states legalizing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), terpenes are in the spotlight now more than ever. 

Both the hemp and marijuana plant have high terpene contents, and those terpenes are part of the reason that certain cannabis strains have different effects. Terpenes are capable of interacting with cannabinoids to alter, reduce, and/or increase their effects. For manufacturers of cannabis products, this is really important!

For manufacturers wanting to maintain the terpene profile within their products, being able to precisely control those terpenes makes all the difference. It’s the type of quality that makes all the difference to a customer too.

Terpenes are amazing and they definitely matter!

Luckily, if even if you don’t partake in cannabis products you can still utilize terpenes in any number of ways. High-end mixologists have been known to utilize terpenes in their cocktails to alter the taste, smell and experience of their drinks. 

Add terpenes to cocktails


Abstrax is dedicated to continuing the research and development of terpenes. We’re always looking for new ways that terpenes can improve our lives and we’re always curious how others are using them! You can definitely expect to see more and more people using terpenes in the future for personal use as well as manufacturers to enhance their product formulations to stand out from the competition. 

That being said, let us know on our social media how you’ve been using our terpenes! Whether it’s one of our isolates or one of our blends, we can’t wait to see the creative ways that people are putting them to good use.

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